In my book Disordered Minds I profiled Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and examined the ways in which each of these leaders came to power. I found that a shared psychopathology between a leader and their most extreme followers was the key to understanding the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities. In the aftermath of Trump’s attempted coup, it is evident that Trump and his MAGA cult fit this pattern perfectly.
Trump as Psychopath
History clearly shows that at times of social and economic crisis, strongman leaders preaching simple solutions to complex problems readily rise to power. Like demagogues past, Trump fits this pattern. Even before his election, mental health professionals were warning that Trump is a dangerous pathological narcissist who is psychologically incapable of valuing human life. He exhibits a rigidly narcissistic belief in his own infallibility, a paranoid fear of enemies, and a psychopathic ruthlessness when it comes to crushing opponents. In his mind he is a ‘Great Hero’ in a world where the poor and ‘weak’ deserve to die. His pathological grandiosity, reflecting a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder, compels him to act in ways that are incomprehensible – discounting other people’s lives, looking for ways in which he can benefit from other people’s tragedies, seeking vengeance in the midst of suffering – and inciting a violent attack on Congress, rather than admit electoral defeat. Trump shows us, yet again, that the real division within humanity is not between races, nations, creeds or cultures. The real division is between a majority who are capable of empathy, and a dangerous psychopathic and narcissistic minority capable only of greed, violence and self-interest. Trump is part of the latter.
Psychopaths make up around 1% of the population. Those with narcissistic personality disorder another 1%. As individuals, they are a danger to families, where they abuse partners and children, and to organisations, where they bully subordinates and corrupt corporate culture. Psychopaths are also vastly over-represented in prisons as they responsible for the majority of violent crimes. This psychologically disordered minority, however, poses the greatest threat to society when they band together to seize the levers of power. Because of their tenacity and exaggerated self-belief, people with dangerous personalities pursue power with greater fervour than people with normal psychology. And at times of economic and social dislocation, their simplistic solutions, sold with utter conviction, convince many that they are the ‘strongman leaders’ needed to solve society’s ills. Such a situation, the takeover of government by a pathological minority, is called pathocracy.
The creation of Trump’s pathocracy over the last 4 years has followed the same dynamics as those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Since his election in 2016, Trump has solidified control by firing opponents and filling the ranks of power with like-minded sycophants. Together they have waged a relentless campaign to discredit opponents and suppress dissent, subvert the integrity and effectiveness of the electoral process, and discredit the very notion of truth. Within the narcissistic fog of confusion they created, Trump and his apologists have been able to navigate with much greater skill than their psychologically healthy opponents, who depend on some level of empathy and reason to operate effectively.
A full blown pathocracy, such as those established under the twentieth century’s tyrants, is a system that encompasses a dominant Party and its financial backers, a propaganda system, and a militia. Trump and his fellow pathocrats have succeeded, through the GOP and its donors, Fox News and social media, in establishing all the elements of this system, apart from one – the militia. Trump’s incitement of the United States Capitol should be understood as a desperate attempt to establish this final vital part of his pathocracy.
The Trump Cult
Over 74 million people voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The vast majority of Trump voters are psychologically normal people who voted for him for a diverse range of reasons, including Party affiliation, economic outlook, and religious beliefs, to name just a few. But for a sizeable minority, Trump’s psychopathology mirrors their own. In a country with the population of the United States, about 20 million people have a dangerous personality disorder. And this minority is clearly over-represented in the extremists within Trump’s MAGA base, as evidenced by Q-Anon conspiracists, white supremacists, and Camp Auschwitz T-shirts in the violent mob that stormed the Capital.
Psychopathology also explains the passionate bond between Trump and his most extreme followers. Those with dangerous personality disorders live in a world that is deeply at odds with their inner reality. That inner reality is based on a value system of bigotry, supremacy, paranoia, hatred, vilification and cruelty towards those they blame for their plight. Under normal circumstances they, and their values, are condemned by society. Under Trump, they have been normalised. The cult-like bond between Trump and his MAGA extremists is rooted in the fact that both are engaged in an existential struggle to create a world in which their disordered values are accepted as normal. The return of a moral order, signalled by Biden’s election as President, will make them outcasts again.
Disarming Trump’s threat to American democracy will require not just the removal and permanent silencing of Trump, but the root and branch dismantling of the system of pathocracy he has created.
It will require a reckoning with the fact that the US now has only one Party committed to democratic politics. Trump accelerated the distillation of the GOP as the Party of the pathologically disordered, pursuing an agenda of extreme economic and racial inequality by any means necessary. The Republican Party paved the way for Trump through decades of gerrymandering, glorifying economic inequality, and vilifying the very idea of government. Under Trump, those within the Party who are of reasonable mind have been thrown to the margins, and the pathological purists have been rewarded with office. Even after Trump’s insurrection, 147 House Republicans and 7 Senate Republicans still voted to perpetuate Trump’s lie that Biden stole the 2020 election. It isn’t only Trump – the current Republican Party is not fit for democratic office.
Dismantling Trump’s pathocracy will require that the Democrats acknowledge the pathological nature of the challenge they face. Throughout Trump’s term as President, the Democrats, with the support of a broad swathe of civil society, mounted an honourable defence of democracy, most notably in their impeachments of Trump. While the responsibility for Trump’s pathocracy lies squarely with the GOP, the Democrat’s opposition to Trumpism was weakened by the Party’s refusal to name the real problem until it was too late, namely Trump’s dangerous mental disorder and the resonance it finds in a deeply pathological layer of American society.
Dismantling pathocracy will also require deep structural reform of the media system in America. In the same way that environmental pollutants are regulated because they cause physical illness, so too the spreading of pathological lies and values has proven to be a danger to both the nation’s mental health and a danger to democracy. The media ecosystem that has spread Trump’s dangerous narcissistic fog must be regulated. The mainstream media outlets too must learn from their role in normalising Trump’s pathology. There has only been one headline worth printing and broadcasting since Trump was elected – “Donald Trump suffers from dangerous incurable narcissistic disorder which makes him incapable of empathy or reason. He is a grave danger to the US and the world.” The mainstream media failed to state this loudly enough and to frame Trump and his MAGA cult within the context of his evident psychopathology.
And, finally, dismantling Trump’s pathocracy will require that Americans together acknowledge the acute danger of continuing on the current path of extreme economic and racial inequality. America today is a society riven with structural violence towards minorities and the less well off. When the structural violence of economic and racial inequality is threatened, real violence is mobilized to maintain the status quo. Trumpism embodies that violence in defense of white power and existing gross inequality. Healing in America will require that American citizens together not only repudiate Trump and his violent mob, but that they also repudiate the inequalities that were the basis of his rise to power.
Author Leonard Shlain wrote, “history doesn’t repeat itself exactly, but human nature does”. That is why we need personal morals and ethical institutions to enable the best, and constrain the worst, of human nature. Amidst the ruins of Trumpism, the task is not simply to heal America, it is to rebuild the country upon stronger moral and institutional foundations – a repudiation in cultural and institutional form of everything that Trump represents.
Ian Hughes is the author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personality Disorders Are Destroying Democracy and contributing author to The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.